There is a scene in the Mel Brooks’ spoof movie, Robin Hood, Men in Tights, that has Prince John saying to the Sherriff of Rottingham: “Maybe if you tell me the bad news in a good way, it wouldn’t sound so bad.”
We all know the drill. In the corporate world, where it is generally recognised that the purpose of business is to make a profit, all major decisions are made with that in mind. So when, for instance, it is concluded by those on top that the headcount is too high, a redundancy programme is implemented. This, of course, is usually resisted by various groupings – the employees themselves, the local community and even customers. So, the public announcement is dressed up in euphemisms. ‘Downsizing’ is one; ‘rightsizing’ another. Perhaps the most extreme example I have come across was when a major accountancy firm announced it had decided to “strengthen our Alumni base”.
I was reminded of this recently, when I came across an announcement by AIB’s First Trust Bank subsidiary in Northern Ireland when it announced it was to close 15 branches – about half its network. Any observer who has reached the age of reason would realise the decision was made to increase bottom-line profits. But, of course, there was no mention of that in the press release. Instead, we were treated to a characteristic spin of euphemisms: the closures were as a result of a review to “plan how we best serve the needs of customers now and in the future”. (On the bright side we were spared the supporting-good-causes euphemisms the National Lottery spews out in its quest to promote gambling to the masses).
This naturally was greeted with a wide range of ‘shock-horror’ reactions, despite the fact, that as the Irish Times put it, “There has been strong industry speculation for some time in the North that First Trust was planning to overhaul how it operated.”
For instance, the bankers union, while admitting staff had been aware of an ongoing restructuring plan, made a statement that staff had been shocked by its extent. Given that its members would have been viewing first-hand the dwindling footfall in the branches as a direct result of advances in technology, such a reaction seems highly improbable. Furthermore, the union presented its case to the public as one of “...great teams, many who have served their community for many years...”. The implication here is that the public somehow believes that bankers have been drawn to their employment as some sort of vocation “to serve their community” – also a highly improbable scenario.
Assuming in the round that we are rational human beings, we are not taken in by what we are being told. We know, on the one hand, the bank is simply putting a gloss on the bad news story it is presenting to the public (no doubt it provides its shareholders with a more feisty impact-on-profits version), and, on the other hand, the union is striving to enlist the public as allies in the inevitable upcoming battle with the employer for compensation for co-operating with market reality.
But why the charade? Just why are such stories presented in a manner that blurs the real facts and covers up the details? Perhaps the root of the problem lies in an issue highlighted by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language where he argued: “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” Surely Orwell is broadly correct? If one reflects on who engages PR advisors in the first place and why they do it, it is evident that they are organisations, be they State, commercial, religions or collectives, who have a negative story breaking, and wish to present it in as positive a manner as possible. Or ‘reconstruct the truth’ (there we go again!) in a manner that will give you and me a warm fuzzy feeling.
Why else do workers with a grievance announce they are going to work to rule? This is usually a euphemism for providing you and me with a more inferior service than heretofore – as distinct from something about which the public should rejoice. Some years ago, gardaí had a ‘blue-flu day’ when the vast majority of our defenders of the law of the land stated they were ill when they were not. Of course, we don’t like the word lie. It is regarded inappropriate parliamentary language, even though its meaning is clear to a seven year old. So instead a plethora of alternatives such as ‘post truths’, ‘economical with the truth’, ‘fake news’ and such like are invented for us.
So who is being fooled by these deceptions? Hardly the customers or the local community for whom the inconvenience of the bank branch closure is patent. Hardly the staff, who have their union to negotiate appropriate compensation. Hardly the political representatives, who will face grief in their constituency offices? Hardly the banks themselves, who masterminded the exercise. So could it be you and me – the public, who are being deceived? “No,” we quickly answer, “we’re not stupid, we see exactly what’s going on.”
So, if no one is being fooled, why is this time and money being spent on ‘spin doctoring’? It seems to me the only logical explanation is that despite our appreciation of what is going on, we don’t want to be confronted head on with the harsh reality of the truth, but rather like Mel Brooks’s King John, prefer to be told the bad news “in a good news way”. And if the customer is always right, the market is acting in a totally rational way in presenting you and me with what it believes are the optimal